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Hungarian Lawmakers Vote to Weaken High Court, Bulgaria Admits Holocaust Role

Plus, Russia and the EU again talk of easing visa rules and Uzbek pundits see an Islamist threat to Central Asia.

by Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, Richard Parrish, and Connor Zickgraf 12 March 2013

1. Hungarian parliament approves contentious constitutional rewrite


Over public protests and international calls for delay, the Hungarian parliament adopted a constitutional amendment that contains a number of controversial measures, according to the BBC. Hungary’s fourth amendment to its year-old constitution passed on 11 March by 265 votes to 11. The legislature is dominated by members of the governing, conservative Fidesz party.


Hungary.protest.11.3.13A protest march against the proposed constitutional amendment in Budapest 11 March, the day before the Hungarian parliament voted to approve the controversial measure. Photo from a video by El Zogoybi/YouTube


The measures, which were initially introduced as laws and later overturned by the Constitutional Court, enact fines for sleeping on the street, define the family as “marriage between man and woman,” and require university students to commit to staying in Hungary for a set period as a condition of receiving scholarships.


The amendment also weakens the Constitutional Court’s power to review laws passed by the parliament.


Opposition Socialist Party leader Attila Mesterhazy called the measures an attempt to "take revenge on the constitutional court, students, opposition parties, and all those who do not do as the government wishes," according to the BBC.


European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland released a joint statement saying the constitutional changes “raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law, and Council of Europe standards.”


2. Bulgaria admits role in wartime Jewish deportations


The Bulgarian parliament 8 March acknowledged the deportation of more than 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled territory to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.


In a declaration that fell short of an apology, the parliamentarians said, “We denounce this criminal act, undertaken by Hitler’s command, and express our regrets for the fact that the local Bulgarian administration had not been in a position to stop this act.”

sophia_synagogue_350The Sofia Synagogue. Photo by jaime.silva/Flickr


The statement marked the first official expression of regret since the war for Bulgaria’s role in the deportations, Balkan Insight writes. The declaration also praised the wartime state institutions and the Orthodox Church for standing by the 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria proper, most of whom survived the war.


On 11 March, representatives of the Macedonian Jewish community and Macedonian officials marked the 70th anniversary of the roundup of 7,000 Macedonian Jews in Skopje, prior to their deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp. Most of Macedonia was under Bulgarian control at the time.


The wartime Bulgarian state, an ally of Nazi Germany, also drew praise last week for its refusal to deport most of its Jewish citizens.


Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Bulgaria for its “unique” defense of its Jewish community, Balkan Insight reports. "[N]o other country, no other people showed the sort of courage that the Bulgarian people did," Peres said at a ceremony in Brussels.


3. Former Georgian security chief announces new Moscow-friendly party


A former security minister recently returned to Georgia with plans to form a political party based on warmer relations with Russia.


Valery Khaburdzania
Valery Khaburdzania headed what was then the Security Ministry before being sacked shortly after Mikheil Saakashvili took power in a bloodless uprising in 2003-2004. He said 10 March he wanted to instill "real competition" between pro-Russian and pro-Western political forces in Georgia, Radio Free Europe reports.


Khaburdzania has been living in Russia for some time: since 2004, according to RFE, or for the last two years, according to Democracy and Freedom Watch, which cites him as saying he is on good terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Khaburdzania also backs Georgian membership in Russian-led economic and security organizations and rejects its plans to join the EU and NATO. He said he would not cooperate with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili or his party because they are too pro-Western, according to Democracy and Freedom Watch.


4. Gap narrows between Russia and Europe on easing visa rules


Simplified travel between Russia and the Schengen countries may soon be a reality for business travelers, students, staff of civic organizations, and a few other categories, The Moscow Times writes.


After a meeting with Russian Ambassador at Large Anvar Azimov in Moscow 11 March, EU Director General for Home Affairs Stefano Manservisi said the sides could reach agreement on visa-free travel for a small number of special passport holders within weeks, RIA Novosti writes. Manservisi wants to see Russia’s request for visa-free travel for 180,000 holders of so-called official passports cut to “a meaningful number,” and Russia’s Foreign Ministry is prepared to limit the privilege to about 15,000 people who possess biometric travel documents, according to The Moscow Times.


The EU has resisted Moscow’s request to lift visa rules for all holders of official passports, which are held by members of parliament, officials, staff of state corporations, and others, saying the rules for their issuance are unclear.


Other obstacles remain to a broader easing of travel restrictions for travelers to and from Russia, and even those merely flying over Russia. An EU spokesman said a new Russian law requiring airlines to provide data for all passengers entering or crossing Russian airspace to Russian law enforcement agencies conflicts with EU data protection rules, The Moscow Times reports.

The European Commission released a list of “common steps” toward visa-free travel 11 March, RIA Novosti reports, including better document security and higher barriers to illegal migration and organized crime.


5. Islamic militants seeking toeholds in Central Asia, Uzbek analysts say


The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant organization with roots in the Ferghana Valley, is seeking to re-establish a presence in Central Asia from its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to Uzbek analysts quoted by Central Asia Online.


Recent militant activity in northern and southern Tajikistan and the instability on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border may point to the group’s increased presence in the region, security analyst Ubaidullo Khakimov told the U.S. Defense Department-sponsored news website.


Tajik authorities carried out an operation against a suspected IMU cell near the border with Uzbekistan in January, Khakimov noted.


An analyst with the Uzbek National Security Service said new fighters being recruited and trained by the IMU in nearby regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan might later be sent to fight in Central Asia, while admitting the organization is not yet “strong enough.” The analyst, S. Khotib, said the IMU’s new leader, Usman Ghazi, last year declared jihad against Kyrgyzstan.


Khotib and political scientist Linura Yuldasheva agreed that most Central Asian Muslims remain secular and reject the IMU’s call for an Islamic caliphate.


An alleged leader in Moscow of the IMU was detained in 1 March, Interfax reports, adding that the group is now known as the Islamic Party of Turkestan.


The Russian Interior Ministry said the suspect, Abdulkhofiz Kholmurodov, was detained in a special operation against the group’s Moscow members.

Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Richard Parrish and Connor Zickgraf are TOL editorial interns.
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